Why we can’t afford to give work away for free

Publishing is in a very conflicted and strange state at the moment, as many people have noticed. This goes double for publishing related to social justice, because there are some peculiar notions bound up in the valuation of work done by journalists, commentators, and others involved in reportage and discussion of social justice issues. To put it bluntly, people are expecting us to work for free, which is disrespectful, unsustainable, and quite frankly against even basic principles of social justice. The devaluation of labour is always a form of violence to workers, and the fact that people do not recognise this is extremely troubling.

When media went online, it made a calculated decision to present material for free, relying on ad-supported distribution methods. Consequently, the public has become accustomed to accessing anything it wants for free, and gets enraged when confronted with paywalls and other attempts to monetise media. The mistake many seem to be making is that media creators are bound on making money hand over fist and supporting the incomes of wealthy executives and owners, but in fact, some really are just trying to pay their staff something other than a pittance — notably, most online-only pieces do not pay at all well, and some people might be surprised by how much even major publications pay for features, including heavily-researched investigative ones.

I have mixed feelings about the issue of paywalls and related matters. I strongly believe that information deserves to be free, and that exposing injustice is a critical part of journalism — when that injustice is wrapped up behind a paywall, some of the people who need to see it most aren’t accessing it. That includes not just victims of injustice who need resources, but also people in a position to act on it. If, for example, stories about abuse of farmworkers remain hidden, that means that farmworkers feel alone and isolated and aren’t aware of organisations working to help them. Meanwhile, the general public isn’t aware of the suffering embedded in the food they eat, and doesn’t know how they can act to support farmworkers.

At the same time, though, assuming that people should perform labour for free is offensive — and the fact that some people in the ‘social justice’ community get actively offended by people asking to be compensated for their labour is utterly repulsive. People deserve to be compensated for their labour. Period. No matter what that labour is. I’m including people raising children at home, who should be given a guaranteed minimum income. I’m including farmworkers, who should be getting fair pay. I’m including construction workers, and authors, and doctors. And yes, I am damn well including journalists and commentators, because what we are doing is work.

And many of us are scrabbling for an existence, hustling for freelance work, sometimes working in addition to day jobs. To be repeatedly told that we should work for free and the ‘common good’ is beyond galling, because the common good also includes our own value as human beings. We too need to be able to pay our rent, to eat, to pay for medical care, to manage other life expenses. In some cases, we need to be able to support children, families, and partners. Telling us that we should work for free — demanding our free labour — runs contrary to the ethics people are supposedly espousing. How, for example, can people demand a minimum income for parents raising kids at home and then turn around and demand that the very same journalists reporting on the issue work for free? How is this not absurd?

Our work, just like that of all labourers, matters. Not just intrinsically as a contribution to society, though that should be enough, but also as something that involves a very specific skillset. Writers need to develop writing skills, and many people attend very expensive colleges and get heavily in debt to do so. Writers need to establish connections — and, if they are ethical, they need to facilitate entries into the writing community for more marginalised and young writers to help them succeed as well. Writers need to cultivate a style, a beat, a reputation, and a foundation of trust with sources in the communities they work with. This is work. It is labour. It may not be physical, hands-on labour, but it is still work.

And, newsflash, it eats up a great deal of time, making it really difficult to work on personal projects. It also takes a toll on our bodies. Many writers struggle with hand, shoulder, and arm problems related to typing. Some have been forced to result to dictation or writing in short bursts, or painful, extensive surgeries to address these problems. For those of us who drive and fly a great deal to work on stories, there are other kinds of physical stress, like the persistent numbness in my left arm from constant driving. Are these not things we should be compensated for? Are these not things that have value? Because the message I get from a community furious about the fact that we are asking for fair compensation for our labour is ‘no, your work does not have value’ and ‘no, you are not valued as a human being.’

The fact that so many of us give away our work entirely for free or entirely at low cost is perhaps a testimony to our commitment to improving society, but it’s also a function of privilege, because not everyone is able, for example, to dedicate hours weekly to writing blog entries that are, and always will be, provided without demands for payment (or ads). Not everyone has the capability to spend time working on low-paid features and projects when they have households to support. And the fact that we still can’t respect the work of writers is really, really disturbing.

Image: Berry Hard Work, JD Hancock, Flickr